Podcast Episode 68: Working for free and the myth of ‘exposure’

Writers, stop working for free, and certainly never pay for the privilege!

if your business plan includes free content

We see it all the time, and it seems to be getting worse: business owners and media outlets put pressure on writers to work for free. Is there any benefit to this, or is the fabled ‘exposure’ they promise not worth a thing? In this episode, Lorrie and I look at the facts and share some rather strong opinions on the topic!

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Transcript

PW: Hello, and welcome to episode 68 of ‘A Little Bird Told Me’, the podcast where two freelance writers tell you all the tricks of the trade. We talk about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful self-employment, saving you from mighty embarrassment and mortifying mistakes, and guiding you to the very top of your chosen profession. Freelancing is a funny old world, but that doesn’t make it easy. Tune in to the podcast every week, and if you go to allittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, you can subscribe from links on that page to ensure that you never miss an episode. We’ve made it really easy to sign up, whatever your favourite podcast technology is, and you will also find there any links we mention in the podcast, our own websites on social media feeds, and the frankly awesome A Little Bird Told Me Facebook page, too. I am Philippa Willitts…

LH: … and I am Lorrie Hartshorn, and today Philippa and I are going to be tackling one of our most loved and loathed topics. I think that’s fair to say, isn’t it?

PW: I think so.

LH: Today we are going to be talking again about working for free, because this is something that just won’t die. It’s getting worse almost, I would say.

PW: Yes. One of earliest episodes – was it episode 4?

LH: I think so.

PW: I will link to it in the show notes.

LH: All the way back.

PW: — was about working for free. And sadly, it’s not only not disappeared from freelancers’ radars, it’s if anything becoming more of an expectation.

PAY

PAY (Photo credit: tind)

LH: Yeah. And we are not happy about it, so brace yourselves for our latest episode in which we are going to cover all the things that we’ve noticed recently, all the trends that are going on in which sneaky people are trying to get you to work for free, and our thoughts on the situation, and how you can avoid getting sucked into that kind of exploitative working relationship.

PW: That’s it – how to handle it, really, how to handle these requests. And the idea for this episode’s topic came from an email that I received last week. Now I won’t name the company in question, but for the sake of this podcast Lorrie has helpfully named it Keith. And what Keith did is exemplify something that I’ve been seeing increasingly lately and it’s a worrying trend. The culprit – Keith – were a website that is pretty high-profile in its field, and its niche is one that I’ve been writing in a lot recently. So I’m on their email list, and I got an email from them entitled ‘Would you like to write for us – Keith?’ And I thought, “Well, yes, actually. Yes, I would. So I opened it.” And rather than it being full of details of how to apply or how to pitch, I found myself instead looking at a quite disheartening message. It says, “I’m looking out for talented writers who can contribute to our website. Contribution is free of charge –”

LH: [laughter] Wow.

PW: “We do ask for the article to be audience-focused, centred on fundraising, and not directly promoting your organization.”

LH: That’s generous.

PW: How kind of them. They don’t charge people.

LH: I know, wow. You don’t have to pay.

PW: Yeah.

LH: Amazing. I mean, I can understand why they said it in a way… There were still loads and loads, and way too many writers out there who will knock out rubbish guest posts in some desperate attempt to gather backlinks. I mean, you and I receive guest posts offers all the time, don’t we? You know, “I can write an amazing article for your website on – subject.” That’s like, “Wow, no thanks.”

PW: All I want in return is two do-follow links.

LH: Yeah. So I can understand trying to tell people that it shouldn’t just be promotional, but then to act like they’re doing you a favour by not charging you, that crosses the line by quite some distance, I’d say.

PW: Yeah. They want you to write for them. They’re not going to pay you.

LH: Already a bit of a warning sign.

PW: Well, yes. And they’re going to make it clear that while you’re not going to have to pay them for the privilege of providing them with free content, [laughter] we’re all very much to see that as a favour on their part.

LH: That’s lacking in self-awareness, I’d say, is about the kindest thing I could say. You know… No, it’s just silly. I mean, I had another incident of this recently. It was a for-profit company that I followed on Twitter. They put out a tweet asking for professional bloggers to get in touch urgently. Now being a professional blogger I did so, and I got an immediate and really enthusiastic, very cheerful email from them chirping about what a life-saver I was, and how they desperately needed content for their website straight away. And I said I’ll sign absolutely, but when I asked what the rate of pay was I was told that, ‘Unfortunately…’

PW: [laughter]

LH: It’s always unfortunate, isn’t it? The work wasn’t paid, but that I’d get great exposure, because they get a lot of traffic to their website – I didn’t get any figures – and they could tweet about me – Pip, brace yourself – to their 3,000 Twitter followers. Yeah, that’s just…

PW: Yeah. We, at the A Little Bird Told Me nest have long warned people against doing work for free if it’s going to be exploitative, and, sadly, writers and other freelancers being asked to do this is still incredibly common. And then this extra idea of paying others to publish you – if that becomes a sign of a new pattern emerging, then it’s one we’ve got to look out really carefully so that we can be armoured if it comes towards our general direction.

There’s a famous internet marketing forum that I occasionally check up on to keep an eye on what the latest is, and there’s a long thread recently where someone had explained his plan to set up a website that anyone could contribute to, and he was asking on the forum how much the readers would be willing to pay to have an article published on his site that, bear in mind, at this stage didn’t even exist.

LH: That’s ridiculous.

PW: And the awful thing was that people were responding to his question suggesting the different amounts of money they’d be willing to pay in order to get the backlinks associated with writing for him. So I responded that, you know, I don’t pay to write for people’s websites, I get paid to write for them. But the general discussion carried on. And while that site wasn’t planning to target writers, it was still promoting the idea that populating other people’s websites with something that we should be grateful for…

LH: I don’t understand it. I really, really, don’t. Because I don’t know if it’s wilful ignorance or what – backlinks from a website, they’re okay, they’re helpful, and they’re a good part of your content marketing strategy, but it’s not a one-way ticket to the top of Google.

PW: Well, no. And paid backlinks are against Google rules, so if they spot you, you’ll be banned.

LH: Awesome. Page 134 on Google.

PW: Exactly. And it will be clearly a site designed to put backlinks on rather than anything that Google will —

LH: How would it be good for your site?

PW: Yeah. Another situation that I came across a few weeks ago is similar, if not worse. I saw a tweet that said something like – I wonder how this conversation went. Client: “We want you to design us a logo.” Designer: “Great. What’s your budget?” Client: “Well, actually, we thought you might pay us.” Now, obviously, I was intrigued, so I clicked the link, and sure enough this was a company who had opened a competition that designers could enter, and they would use the winner’s design as their company logo.

LH: Okay. [laughter]

PW: Now many freelancers would object to this already. Designers in particularly are often under a lot of pressure to do this kind of spec work, where they create a complete design as an entry to a competition, and so it’s very much spec work on the off chance of a very small chance of eventually getting work. And so many designers see that in a similar way that Lorrie and I regard writing for free or blogging for free. It’s rough.

LH: You’re creating a finished piece of work. It’s like one of us writing a report.

PW: Exactly. It’s rough on the writer and the designer, but it’s also rough on the people trying to get money for what they’re doing, as well. But it got worse than that, the competition has an entry fee.

LH: [laughter]

PW: Designers have to pay them $25 for the privilege of having their work considered to be the logo for the Centre for Architecture and Urban Design in Los Angeles. Just everything is wrong with that.

LH: Yeah. There’s nothing right with that at all anywhere in this situation. That’s ridiculous.

PW: And despite a big Twitter backlash, I checked the site this morning and it’s all still the same.

LH: That’s outrageous. And the sad thing is you get a lot of people entering that competition.

PW: You will, because everybody wants their big break, and you just think, “Well, if I could spend a few hours and then get a really big gig, like being able to say that yeah, I designed the logo for the Centre for Urban Design and Architecture, that’d look great on my CV.” But the reality is there are other sites, like 99Designs, which work on a similar basis. You post a budget – they at least don’t pay to do the work – you post a budget and say what you want, and then as many designers as you want can submit an idea and then you pay the one you like best. And it’s the same thing with that. You can work full time submitting complete ideas and never getting paid for any of them because yours is not chosen.

"Your logo here"

“Your logo here” (Photo credit: jystewart)

LH: It just seems like pure laziness and just exploitation on the part of the client, really, because when you get in touch with somebody you talk to them about what you need and then you have discussions, you have initial discussions about how you’ll get a logo or an article or whatever you want to get.

PW: Exactly. Because I used to think – with a site like 99Designs I used to see the appeal of saying what you want, and then getting, say, 50 logos, and you could choose the very best one. And I used to really see the appeal of that. But now, like you say, I see it very differently, where actually the way to get exactly what you want is to work with somebody who can give you exactly what you want rather than —

LH: And to actually put some hard work in, rather than just sit on your butt and get other people to spend their time for free. I think it’s this kind of ‘if I can’t see it it’s not a problem’ attitude.

PW: Yeah. That’s it. And so we’re fully aware that it’s not just writers suffering this. The last time we talked about this on the podcast we’d mentioned it on Twitter, this topic, and we’d even heard from a woman who was a professional cake decorator.

LH: Oh, I remember her, yeah.

PW: Do you remember? And someone said to her, “Well, if we bring you flour and eggs and sugar, will you do it for free?” And that really highlighted how unreasonable a request this is.

LH: Yeah. I mean, when you put it in those terms rather than words and sentences and paragraphs, but cakes?

PW: Yes. And you instantly go, “Well, clearly there’s more to this than flour.” She’s clearly very artistic and this takes skill. But actually that’s the case will all of us.

LH: That’s outrageous, honestly. It makes me so cross. I’m struggling to stay not crossed right now.

PW: That’s one aspect of working for free that we’re aware of as a potentially rising trend, which is being expected to work for free and pay for the privilege. Now in a while we’re also going to talk about your more common-or-garden working for free, where at least it doesn’t cost you. But we also want to look at this ongoing issue of writers being expected to write for incredibly low pay. We’re not talking about being argued down by a couple of pounds. We’re talking about someone wanting 1,000 words for $7 – very low pay.

LH: Yeah. I was doing some research when we were planning this episode, and I came across something that I found really quite shocking. It’s a forum called Absolute Write Watercooler. It’s Absolute W-R-I-T-E.

PW: Of course.

LH: And on this forum there is actually a ban on criticizing unpaid or poorly paid work. It’s a writers’ forum.

PW: Now if that’s not defensive behaviour I don’t know what it is.

LH: Yeah. Now on one particular thread that I had a read of is a couple of years old now, but one poster on there is actually told off by a moderator for questioning a roll that’s described as part-time or full-time, has a turnaround of 24 hours for 3-4 500-word blog posts, and pays $5 per article. So the commenter is a user called Shadow Ferret comment —

PW: Obviously. [laughter]

LH: Obviously, of course it would be. It wouldn’t be something like Dave Smith for the sake of the podcast. No, it’s called Shadow Ferret. He comments, “I’m always intrigued by people who want something written but won’t pay professionally to get it.” $5 per a 500-word article and expecting 3-5 articles a day. That’s nearly full time work, and all you can expect to make is $25 a day. So it’s basically the same point that we’ve just made. Now the reply from the moderator is swift and in my opinion really shocking. It features excerpts from previous posts from the then owner of the site. And it reads, “I can understand your point, Shadow Ferret, but discussions like this one are the reason the Paying Markets Board was closed to comments for almost two years, and why we now have a rule against such discussions.” They’re really engaging with the topic then.

The post continues. There’s a really predictable history on this board, and these are the excerpts. Someone posts a low-paying job. Lots and lots of people post complaints about the low pay. It’s tiring. Now you’d think they’d take the hint instead of assuming that lots and lots and lots of writers are just stingy arseholes. But I suppose not. Instead, they’re besieging writers who are offended by low pay to just not apply and not say anything, because it obviously solves the problem of prices being driven down to a level way below living wage.

PW: Yeah. The problem isn’t people complaining about rubbish pay. The problem is rubbish pay.

LH: Exactly.

PW: And this whole thing about “Well, if you don’t like it, don’t apply” is the same argument as if you complain about racism in a TV programme and then someone says, “Well, if you don’t like it, don’t watch.” But it’s bigger than that. It doesn’t solve – there’s a bigger problem.

LH: Yeah. It doesn’t solve anything. And now the person that I’m quoting in these excerpts is the former owner of Absolute Write, and this is a ghost writer named Jenna Glatzer. And I did a little bit of looking around. On her Twitter profile Miss Glatzer claims to have written Celine Dion’s authorised biography.

PW: Wow.

LH: On her website she also states that she writes regularly for celebrities, and she states in her FAQs that “I charge a flat fee for ghost writing proposals, and I warn you that I’m not cheap.”

PW: Right.

LH: And not only does she actually charge for her ghost writing services quite rightly, she charges for proposals. And if you can bet your ass it’s not a $5-fee.

PW: No, she seems very clear that she doesn’t work for low prices.

LH: Funny that, yeah.

PW: Isn’t it.

LH: And back to Jenna’s comments on Absolute Write, she continues, “Please, if a job doesn’t pay enough to make it worth it for you, just don’t apply. There’s no need to post a complaint about it. If there’s something dishonest about the job, or if you want to raise other questions, that’s fine. But please, enough with the posts just to say, ‘Wow, that pay stinks.’ That almost never changes anything.”

PW: To be honest, if I run that forum it might change something because it might change my opinion of posting jobs like that in the first place.

LH: Yeah, especially if you’re a self-proclaimed not a cheap writer working for a variety of multi-millionaire clients.

PW: That’s it. Other circumstances you’d want to say, “Good for her. She’s made it. She’s doing very well.” But it’s just that enthusiasm’s dampened, isn’t it?

LH: Well, it’s like climbing up the ladder and standing on the heads of other freelance writers, because this forum that she owned has now been sold to somebody else, and I’m pretty sure that she didn’t sell it for $5.

PW: That seems unlikely.

LH: So Jenna goes on. “Complaining about pay rates only serves a few purposes. It scares off others who would post jobs here, and it makes hobbyists and new writers feel bad if they take low paying jobs, and it makes me grumpy.” Apparently, writers still weren’t happy with that, which prompted —

PW: Fairly enough.

LH: Weirdly enough – prompting Glatzer to ban what she called “snooty writers” from complaining about low rates. Because she deleted their posts and changed the commenting options on the job boards to announcement-only with responses only allowed by moderators. Now fast forward by two years and she comments, “We’re giving you all another chance. Please don’t abuse it and make us go back to announcements only.” So complaining about unfairly low pay rates, which the founder of the forum won’t personally accept is abuse. And what really sums this up for me, what really is the cherry on the cake, on the free cake.

PW: [laughter] Freely decorated.

LH: I know. What really sums it up for me is this tiny little comment in the middle of all of it, which reads, “Note: Absolute Write is a low-paying market. I’d really rather not feel like I can’t post our needs on our own board.” So Absolute Write can’t protect the writers that use the forum from exploitative employers because they are one.

PW: It’s so bad, because I know freelancers when they’re starting out really seek out blogs and websites and forums, to give them confidence and to learn about the trade.

LH: To reduce isolation of the job, because this is a very isolating job, and I think a lot of confidence issues with freelance writers come from the fact that you’re on your own and you’re handling it all on your own.

PW: Yeah. And so I lucky, many people were lucky in that they found actually the great blogs to be reading in that niche, and things that told me and know in certain terms I was entitled to decent money for what I was doing, that I was entitled to not be earning £4/hour when I broke it all down. And with that expectation and belief I was able to negotiate good deals for myself. I hate the thought of someone instead finding a site like that and thinking, “Oh, this site is about freelancing and they pay. Let’s have a look. Oh, they pay $5 an article.” But then thinking, “Well, this is obviously how it works.”

LH: Yeah, because she’s a freelance writer. This one is a successful ghost writer. Apparently this must be how you do it. And ordinarily I would feel torn about criticizing another writer so openly, and I’ll be honest, especially a woman, because it’s not easy. But I’m pretty much getting to snapping point with the attitude that writers are unreasonable and greedy and snooty for wanting to be paid for their work. I cannot see any reason that anybody that expects decent money for their own services to encourage other people to work for pennies or even nothing. It’s not acceptable.

PW: Yeah. And one of the ways that people often try to get people to work for nothing is the suggestion that if you write for us for free you’ll get great exposure. Hurrah! Now there will be the very, very odd occasion when it might actually be worth writing for free to get exposure to a particular audience. However, what you need to remember is that despite what people tell you in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases it is not worth it. Most of these opportunities won’t give you any exposure at all, and even those that do… Exposure isn’t the same as money in the bank.

LH: No. And if you get exposure for writing on a well-known platform that doesn’t pay all you’re doing is exposing yourself to people who go, “Oh, they write for free.”

PW: Very true.

LH: Awesome. More free clients, yes!

PW: Carol Tice, who runs the blog ‘Make A Living Writing’ —

LH: She’s great, isn’t she?

PW: She is. And that’s actually one of the blogs I was talking about earlier, one of the ones that set me up to demand decent prices for myself. — wrote a blog post recently that I linked to. She looked at the websites of three different people who had approached her offering her the exciting chance to write for them for free.

LH: [laughter]

PW: Now Carol Tice is, amongst other things, a very successful journalist who writes for Forbes magazine. She knows what she’s doing.

LH: She’s like one of the most popular online freelance writers out there. Every article she writes has hundreds and hundreds of comments.

PW: Yeah. She’s got the magic.

LH: She has. She’s great.

PW: Yeah. So she’s looked at these three different people that approached in different ways – I think one on Facebook, one by email. And she found that each of the sites that they were offering her the exciting chance to write on got not traffic, whereas she has a mega-successful website. They don’t, and yet they think they’re doing her a favour.

LH: Is this short-sightedness, isn’t it? Because with a lot of these free opportunities for exposure is part of the business plan, isn’t it? I will have lots of free content and then my site will make lots of money, and then I will get lots of advertisers and hurray, ching-ching all the way to the bank.

PW: And this whole thing of putting you in a business plan has got to such a ridiculous degree that I pitched the magazine and they liked my pitch and wanted my feature, and I asked about the fee, and they said, “Oh, you know what it’s like. We’re start-up. We didn’t budget for it.” Do you remember this?

LH: Yes. You’d just been to that content marketing show, haven’t you?

PW: Yes, exactly. And this was a magazine! And the magazine’s business plan hadn’t budgeted for writers.

LH: Amazing. [laughter]

PW: So no surprise that other businesses don’t budget for them if the magazine thinks that, obviously you try to then persuade me to do it for exposure, and then eventually ask my fees, interestingly.

LH: What a joker.

PW: Yeah. But there’s this thing of not putting email in your business plan. If you’re going to need something on your website or on your brochure, or on a leaflet, then it doesn’t come out of the air.

LH: Yeah. If your business plan doesn’t work without free content, your business plan doesn’t work. It’s a rubbish business plan. If you need content – I’m pretty sure you do, if you’re going to have an online business – and you don’t budget for it, then you might as well just upload an empty website – ridiculous.

PW: Yeah. You’ve messed up your planning, you need to start again.

LH: Yeah. Plan fail. Go and find yourself some funding from somewhere. Go and work a job somewhere for a while, dip into your savings and fund some bloody content rather than expecting content for free.

PW: And the content is what’s going to bring people to your website, is what’s going to persuade people to buy from you.

LH: It’s everything. It’s what’s going to appear on Google.

PW: It’s not incidental. Yeah, it’s not incidental to your success or failure. It’s business.

LH: No. it’s not just optional. Well, I’m going to talk about an example that happened to me recently. And one point that I wanted to make before that, though, is that when people offer to publish you for exposure – and that sounds like a good thing to you – what comes into my mind is that the best way for a freelance writer to become well-known and get real exposure is for them to market themselves properly. You don’t need to appear on some chump’s website for free, It’s ridiculous. Don’t bother wasting your time making money for somebody else.

PW: Yeah. Marketing is all about getting yourself out there.

LH: Absolutely. So get yourself out there. Promote your work properly, have a decent website, have an active, engaging social media feed or two, and you will have absolutely no trouble getting plenty of exposure.

PW: And if you decide that part of your marketing plan is to do some strategic guest posting, then do that on the basis of making your own choices about where to approach. Don’t do it on the basis of some chancer dropping in your email box and saying, “Do you want to write for our factory seconds shop?”

LH: Yeah. I mean, have a look at popular sites that match your interests and your expertise.

PW: And where your potential clients hang out. That’s the thing.

LH: Yeah. Absolutely. So if you’re a trade and industrial writer like me, you might go in and have a look at the trade and industrial publications, and see if they’re taking any guest posts, or see if they welcome features from people.

PW: Because they’re not going to be checking out Mr Factory Seconds’ website, just in case there was a good writer on there once.

LH: No, it’s bloody ridiculous. It’s completely stupid. Plus, most of these start-up businesses, they’re not going to get anywhere, especially if they’ve got a rubbish business plan. So you’re just going to throw your writing into the ether, sit there on some rubbish website that’s possibly going to get blacklisted.

PW: And it’s certainly less popular than your own if you’re doing something right.

LH: Yeah, absolutely. And this is what made me laugh about that stupid printing company telling me that they’d tweet about me to their 3,000 followers on Twitter. I’ve got 2,700 followers on my own account, plus another hundred or so on my Facebook. Plus we have this podcast, plus we have the Facebook page for it, plus I promote myself via newsletter and other means. There’s no way I need some random chancer with a load of bots following him to tweet about me like it’s going to transform my business into a FTSE 100 Company. Naïve at best.

PW: Exactly. I mean, we’re doing alright. The key is all Twitter followers of which we both have a good number, they’re interested in what we do, whereas your printing guy had Twitter followers interested in printing, presumably, which is hardly your target audience. We’ve got podcast listeners, Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections. And the key to that is that we worked hard to maintain the relationships on all of those platforms. So in order for work for exposure to be significant enough to take our time out of doing that someone would need to offer significantly more than a few tweets.

LH: Way more.

PW: There was one instance when I did write for free. I think I’ve talked about it on the podcast before, and it doesn’t sit well with me because it was for a profit-making company, whereas my free writing is almost exclusively for non-profit. But I made a decision in that instant that it was worth it, and it was for a national newspaper with a very good readership. And even with that audience I didn’t do it for this mythical exposure thing, because even with that volume of audience it didn’t lead directly to any work or even any contact. However, I decided for myself that it was worth it so that I could add that newspaper to my list of places I’ve written for. A one-off piece of writing to improve my quotes indefinitely, that’s all it was. And for me it was a tough choice, but it was one that’s worked, although it still doesn’t sit comfortably with me as I said. I fundamentally object to writing for free for anyone who makes a profit. However, there will be times when it seems like more of a tempting offer, and for me that was one, but do bear in mind I wrote for a national newspaper and the exposure didn’t do anything.

LH: And I think a key point it to remember, as well, is that you wrote about something you’re passionate about.

PW: Yes.

LH: You led on the subject. You weren’t dictated to. It wasn’t please write X, Y and Z. And you wrote about something that you write about for free for non-profits, as well, so it’s really an area of expertise for you. I mean, it is a tough line. I wouldn’t necessarily criticise you for it. I can see why it doesn’t sit well. But in an ideal world, which should be a fairer one for writers, it wouldn’t have been a choice that you had to make, because a national newspaper which comprises all necessarily content would actually pay for content.

PW: That’s it. And I made that decision knowingly, and I am still glad to be able to list a paper in my quotes, but I do also feel resentful that they don’t pay their blog writers, and I hate having contributed to that. Plus, it bears repeating. Even writing on that platform didn’t expose me to more work. So if it’s jumped-up fellow with an empty website and a vague idea for a business it’s really, really not going to get you any work.

LH: Yeah, I think, you know, like I said before, I think the topic is an important one to you, and I think it was good for you, as well. You know, one of the benefits that you got with being able to express those thoughts and opinions to a wider audience and raise awareness of that. So I don’t think it was an entirely cynical thing, knowing you as well, but… It’s difficult, isn’t it? And it’s a slightly different thing, but again, one more reason to laugh at this printing mogul – I was asked by the owner of Bizitalk – and that’s one of the most popular business hashtags on Twitter – whether they could re-share one of the blog posts that I published on my website. So I said fine. I had already posted the work, so it was really no effort for me. I just had to say, “Yeah, that’s fine.” So they tweeted it numerous times an hour to an interested audience of business owner. And I write for business owners – that’s who my clients are. And they’ve got about 150,000 followers, so it’s slightly more than 3,000, and that’s not counting their smaller satellite accounts. And they posted a link to that blog for days on end. I’m talking numerous times an hour because this is what they do, they’re advertisers.

PW: If it’s one thing Busy Talk are very good that it’s self-promotion.

LH: Exactly. And they prefaced the link with the fact that I’m their top blogger. They got record traffic for my article, and basically the bee’s knees. And they even gave me a mention in their monthly newsletter. I got literally no work from it. And I’ve got an active social media profile, I’ve got an updated very nice neat website, I was interacting with people. I interact regularly on Twitter, Facebook, whatever. I got nothing. I go a few new followers, but that doesn’t count for anything.

PW: Exactly. And we both offered that work for free, we both made a considered decision to do so, and while I don’t regret it, and Lorrie doesn’t regret it, it does go to show that you’re just not going to persuade of the exposure will pay the bills. It may serve other purposes for you and you’re always entitled to make your own decisions on this stuff. And as we said, they’re not always easy decisions, but don’t be seduced by the idea without thinking it through realistically.

English: University of Cambridge. University Hall

English: University of Cambridge. University Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

LH: No, absolutely not. There was a case, too, at the end of last year here, in the UK, and there’s a novelist, critic and journalist called Philip Hensher, and he was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize a couple of years ago, so he’s a pretty decent writer. And he was asked by an academic at Cambridge University – and it’s fair to say it’s one of the wealthiest educational establishments in the country. He was asked to write a preface for this academics book for free or, as it later transpired, in return for books. Because we all know that books can completely be used to pay the gas bill. But when Hensher refused to do that he was dubbed “priggish and ungracious” by this professor of German, Andrew Weber.

PW: Because, of course, think of the exposure he’d have got having written a preface to someone else’s book.

LH: I know. Obviously. When I’m looking to hire a writer what I do is I go and look at books, and then check who wrote the preface…

PW: Unless they haven’t written any prefaces, then off the list.

LH: Yeah. It’s no good, is it? But going back it, it smacks of pure sulkiness to me, it smacks of infantile sulkiness. If you want a Man Booker Prize shortlisted novelist and write a preface for your book because, frankly, who wouldn’t? It’s because it’ll look awesome to have someone introducing you, but what a cheek! What a pure cheek to suggest that you should get something that you really want and something that will really benefit you for free, just because you want to. I mean, it makes no sense.

PW: And it’s not even just that they expected him to do it for free. It was that when he refused, which is fully within his right to, they insulted him for it.

LH: I mean, talk about a lack of self-awareness. He must have been so… It’s Andrew Weber, I think, professor of German. He must have been so comfortable in his position so his entitlement to this free work from somebody he’d never communicated with before, who had nothing to gain from it, except a few books. He was so comfortable with that he called him “priggish and ungracious.”

PW: So rude.

LH: That is so rude. And again, it’s worth noting at this point – let’s go back to Jenna Glatzer – that according to The Times Higher Education the average Cambridge professor can you guess what they earned in 2011-2012?

PW: Well, it wouldn’t be fair if I did, because I can see it on our notes in front of us.

LH: Got it. Wow, listeners, they earned £79,022 on average.

PW: They’re not typical starving academics, then.

LH: No, I’d say not. And I’m guessing they’re not paid in books, as it’s quite common for everybody else than writers, it seems, in the currency of the realm, i.e. cash.

PW: There was a brilliant blog post that did the rounds years ago, where a man wrote to British Gas and said that he couldn’t afford to pay his bill for £62.67, and so would they please instead accept his drawing of a spider which he had valued to be worth £62.67, and they refused and sent it back.

LH: That’s so ungracious and priggish.

PW: And it was all – I will link to it if I can find it, because it’s a long ongoing interaction that ended up very funny.

LH: It’s good that they sent the spider back, though. That’s fair, I suppose, rather than just keeping the spider.

PW: We’re going to look now at a few reasons why you shouldn’t work for free. We’ve looked at why it’s not especially healthy to your business, but there’s plenty more reasons why actually it’s something you should avoid, and the most obvious reason that you shouldn’t work for free is that you presumably have bills and you need to eat and clothe yourself and keep a roof over your head. It’s the same reason that anybody with a job has a job.

LH: Yeah. I mean, you wouldn’t just get up at 7:00 AM on a Saturday and go into the office for nothing.

PW: That’s it.

LH: Yeah. I mean, one thing that gets me about working for free and allowing businesses to maintain this idea that there are people who deserve to be paid and people who don’t deserve to be paid, and that writers are firmly in the second category, is that it means that writing is only a profession for people who are already well-off. I resented it when I read it on the Absolute Write forum when it said “hobbyist writers.”

PW: Yes. That’s such a demeaning term, isn’t it? It just dismisses any professionalism you may think you have.

LH: And let’s be honest, it’s bollocks. I’m getting really cross, but it’s complete bollocks. Who for a hobby writes up to 5 500-word articles a day for $5 each on topics like software and the healthcare system, which is what this random – it was basically an article distribution service. So you’re looking at all kinds of industrial, commercial, you know, topics that people don’t write about as a hobby.

PW: Yeah. So all of which need research and writing and checking.

LH: Yeah, it’s not a hobby. It’s such bullshit. And basically saying “hobbyist writers” is the same as writers who work for free. You know, a hobbyist, my God! It makes me so cross. And we’ve all seen those magazine internships in the US being auctioned off, and I think there was one that was unpaid, obviously. It was an editorial internship at Teen Vogue, and it went for $85,000.

PW: And these unpaid internships are ruining it for everybody, frankly. I know people trying to break into various aspects of TV and radio broadcasting, and even if you’re not having to pay to get an internship, you still need to be in a position where for 3 months or 6 months you can cope with no income.

LH: Usually it’s people who’ve got mommy or daddy on the end of the phone, and that’s not their fault.

PW: Yeah. They move back home or their parents will pay for it, but most people don’t have that, and so they are automatically excluding a massive number of people because they don’t have 6 months of living expenses in the bank.

LH: Absolutely. If you can’t live for free and just get say your sandwich and then your travel paid for, then apparently you’re not committed enough. And there are plenty now of professions where, unless you’ve done unpaid internships or just internships – I forget to mention the unpaid generally.

PW: It’s always the same.

LH: Yeah, those are completely the same. They don’t care whether you were paid or not. Unless you’ve done internships, you’re no good. So things like fashion, broadcasting, as Pip said, radio, things like that, editorial, publication, you know, things like that. It’s ridiculous.

PW: Actually thinking about that thing of whether internship meant the same as unpaid internship – I think it must do now because I’ve seen on Twitter recently a few charities and non-profits saying “apply for our paid internship.”

LH: Oh yeah, they specify the other way around.

PW: And “paid” is in capital letters, with big exclamation marks, because it’s such a novelty.

LH: I always retweet those.

PW: I do, too. And I refuse to retweet unpaid internships, no matter how good the opportunity or no matter how good a charity. If it’s a charity…

LH: Do you know who is offering an unpaid internship recently?

PW: Go on.

LH: Simon Cowell.

PW: [laughter] ‘Cause he’s skint.

LH: Isn’t he a billionaire?

PW: Oh, at least.

LH: At least. What is he, a trillionaire?

PW: [laughter] Gazillionaire. Another reason that writing for free causes problems is that it devalues what you do, devalues what we all do. If you’ve got somebody who has a gang of writers happy to write whatever they want, just in case they get a mention on a website, then why should any of those people, be it the commissioning person or the writers, actually value what writers do? There’s no motivation in there at all to take what we do seriously, and to ever get in a position where you can earn a decent wage from it.

LH: Yeah. The number of times I’ve gone on these websites and seen something that appear to have been written by a five-year old with an access to a keyboard is ridiculous. You’re looking at work that’s been hammered out in ten minutes. It makes no sense, half of it has been ripped from somewhere else, it’s plagiarised and… To be honest, I get really cross, and I mean really cross when I see so-called professional writers on business forums say, or social media platforms, snapping up or even creating and offering opportunities where they will work for free for business.

PW: She’s not lying, because she then emails them to me. She is incredibly cross and I join her.

LH: I’m so cross because I want to shake these people. Honestly, if you were a writer and you are out there thinking, “Yeah, I’ll write for some company or some for-profit company for free” I’m cross with you. And all the business owners I see swarming around them like flies – it’s nauseating, and it shows off the worst of human nature, to my mind, expecting something for nothing and being sulky and rude about other people wanting to pay their bills.

PW: Yeah. I use an Android phone app all the time called Bus Scout. I will give it a little promo because it’s marvellous. Wherever I am in the country it uses my GPS to find me and it shows me the nearest bus stops, shows me which buses go there, where they go to, when it’s due. And I use this app all the time.

LH: That’s brilliant.

PW: If I’m in a part of town I don’t know, or a place I don’t know, I use it to find out how to get from A to B. If I’m getting my usual bus home I use it how far away that bus is, because it will say “3 minutes away” or “8 minutes away”, whatever, so it’s brilliant. And I use it several times a week and have done for a long while. And then a few months ago a popup came up when I used it. And it said, “Service is guaranteed to remain free, but one aspect of it, which is if you want to click through to the timetable of each bus that we list, we’re going to have to start charging for because the server costs are too high.”

So I thought, “Okay. Well, I’ll see how much it is and then make a decision.” So I click through and this guy wanted $2.99 a year.

LH: [laughter] Steady…

PW: And I thought, “Well, I use this app all the time. I do use the timetable function, and $2.99 a year – I can do that, that’s fine.” So I instantly subscribed. I was happy to, and I felt good that I could support presumably some lad in his bedroom who’s created this thing.

LH: Brilliant app.

PW: Yeah. That I use all the time. And so I thought, “I value the app. I’m happy to pay that amount.” But then next time I looked at it in the Play Store it suddenly got a load of negative reviews from people going, “I can’t believe you have to pay for this. It’s outrageous, it’s disgusting. I used to think this app was great, but I’m uninstalling it now.”

LH: Scumbags.

PW: And I’m thinking, well, first of all, most of the app is still free. It’s fully functional. You just can’t access specific timetables, but also he wants $2.99 a year. Now if you really think it used to be a great app, then it’s still a great app… And so I made a point of leaving positive feedback for the guy, in particular mentioning what a great bargain it was that actually, too. And this is the same entitlement, isn’t it?

LH: Yeah.

PW: People want it, they want it now, and they want it free.

LH: It’s outrageous. It’s so disappointing, honestly. You kind of feel betrayed by other writers doing it. I remember I was on a business forum, and I was there working hard and stuff, and talking to people, and doing all this relationship marketing that I don’t enjoy it. I like being with my books and my words, and my writing. I don’t particularly like chin-wagging to people about business. It’s just part of the job that I have to do. And there was this writer on there, and he started this thread saying, “Who wants free articles?” And basically he was offering free articles on any subject to business owners in return for backlink. And the business owners – honestly, it’s pathetic – they were all awed.

PW: I can imagine – scrambling for the scraps.

LH: It was so nauseating. I can’t express how disgusting I found it. They were all like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. DM me, DM me. Email me, email me, email me.” And I’m like, “You people are advertising the fact that you have no idea about content marketing.” Not the businesses, not the writers. And that’s the writer who one day will feel ashamed of being such sell-out.

PW: If I was looking for a writer, an online writer – these days online writers need some SEO basic knowledge. Even if you’re not looking for an SEO writer, you still need to know the basics. And so if you’re thinking, “I need a writer who knows the basics of SEO,” this guy clearly doesn’t. So he’s doing himself no favours. He’s going to give out a lot of work that’s going to be half-hearted because he’s not getting paid for it.

LH: Probably badly written.

PW: Probably the people who receive it aren’t going to value it because all they had to do was reply to a forum post.

LH: What are they going to do with it? Just bang it up on their website? That’s going to look awesome.

PW: Yeah, they’ll throw up somewhere on their site that doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a waste of everybody’s time. And then he’s not going to get any of those businesses come back to him and say, “That was so good. We’d like to pay you now.”

LH: Why would they? It makes no sense.

PW: Exactly.

LH: But what they’re also not going to do is come to me and pay thousands of times more for the writing that I’m going to do for them than the £0-writing that he’s going to do.

PW: Yeah. I have a regular client that I do a few blog posts for a week, and when I was first negotiating with them – or not negotiating even, you know, just talking with them about —

LH: Bashing things out.

PW: Yeah, what they wanted and what I could offer. And Andy, who I was speaking to on the phone said, “Well, ideally what we’d like is a few kind of test articles”, which if you’ve done freelancing for any amount of time, that pulled alarm bells, isn’t it? It’s like, “Oh, test articles…” Because there are businesses who will go around getting two test articles off every writer they find, and then they have a complete website. It’s inconsistent and it makes no sense, but it’s complete. And so, of course, my alarm bells instantly went off. But he said, “Obviously, we’ll pay you for the test articles, and then we can see how they go.”

LH: And an angel started to sing around you.

PW: I know. Exactly. But I didn’t even have to say, “I don’t do test articles for free.” The fact that it was him that suggested that he would pay me for them – I knew from the start that he considered what I did valuable. I knew that he respected what I did and so it was the start… And it worked. They liked my test articles which they paid for.

LH: Yeah. And I bet you put a lot of effort into those test articles, as well.

PW: Of course I did.

LH: I mean, knowing you, you put effort into everything.

PW: But yeah, it continues to be a very respectful and equal relationship, whereas if it had started off with me offering a freebie in return for a backlink, how could that ever be a proper professional relationship?

LH: No, it’s ridiculous. I had an email from a freelance writer and editor who wrote – I’ve kind of mentored her a little bit. She got into it after I did, and I did my best to look out for her, because, like I said, it’s an isolating career and…

PW: We’ve all been there.

LH: So anyway, she emailed me the other day, and she said, “Can I just get your opinion on the below?” And there was an email thread below. And, of course, I didn’t mind. And I looked down. To her credit, actually, because I’ve never known this to work for anybody else, she had contacted a guy, an owner of a small publishing independent publishing house, and said, “I’m a professional proof-reader. I’ve had a look at your website, and I’ve noticed it’s full of mistakes. Would you be interested in my proofreading services?” And he got back to her – and that’s where I’m saying, “Wow! It’s never worked for anyone else I know.”

PW: Yes. I know we’ve both done that, and it’s never happened.

LH: It’s never worked. So he got back to her, and they had a little to-and-fro and he said, “Actually, I’m just trying to get the website up at the moment, so I would just stuck whatever on there.” And she said, “Well, you know, that’s not going to do your reputation any favours, because people are going to read that content. It’s badly written.” And they got talking, and he basically said, “Do you do book editing, as well?” And she said, “Yeah. Absolutely.” And she has some brilliant experience. And she said, “Yes, I do do book editing.” And he sent her over a chapter of some stupid sci-fi novel to do as a test edit. This is when she got in touch with me and said, “What do I do? Because he wants me to edit this for free, to see whether I’m any good.”

And I said, “Well, I wouldn’t edit it for free. I think he’s a complete chancer, and if he wants his book editing, he can bloody well pay for it.”

PW: Yeah. I remember you had a situation a year or two ago with some translations. And you did some test translations, because it’s kind of – with editing and translation it’s kind of hard to show what you can do because it involves a before and after and that kind of thing. And yeah, I remember you did some test translations, and then they never got back to you, because they never got back to anybody.

LH: No.

PW: Because they had got everything done as a test. And it’s so easy to fall into.

LH: Yeah. And immediately I advised this woman to get back to him and say, “I’m happy to edit it. This is what it will cost you.” I was like, “Don’t make a big thing of it. Just work out the fee, and tell him you’d be happy to do that. I’ve got some space next week, and this is what it will cost. If you have to go ahead, I’ll do that for you, and you can see what you think.” And all of a sudden the project was on hold. That was it. Immediately she got response: The project’s on hold. Thanks very much.

PW: I got an inquiry a week or two ago by someone who should have been a really good fit. I should have been a really good fit for them. They should have been a really got fit for me. The site was health related, which is one of my areas, and it was all looking really promising until I mentioned my fees, at which point – and this is what-, they just disappeared.

LH: No.

PW: That’s what makes me angry. They didn’t even say, “Sorry. It’s out of our price range at the moment”, which I’d have some respect for. They just disappeared, and it’s clearly the fees. My fees, listeners, aren’t extortionate. They’re also not cheap. They’re right place.

LH: They’re reasonable.

PW: They’re where they should be.

LH: Yeah, absolutely, completely reasonable for a woman of your skills, experience and expertise.

PW: That’s it. And I have much more respect for another who got in touch with me last week asking about press releases, and I said how long a press release takes me, and therefore I explained the price. He got back to me and said, “I fully understand your workings out. It makes a lot of sense to me. However, for my clients at the moment that’s not a fee I can work with.” And he wasn’t expecting me to drop my fee. He was just letting me know…

LH: It’s just not a problem, is it?

PW: Yeah. And that’s absolutely fine. You’ll get several inquiries for every client you end up landing. Part of the job is just dealing with inquiries, and you know that most of them or at least some of them won’t go anywhere. But be straight with somebody. If it’s too expensive don’t try and talk them down. Just say, “Sorry, at the moment, I can’t stretch to that.” It’s not hard.

LH: Yeah. I mean, just as you’ve experienced this, I’ve had prospective clients basically smack down perfectly reasonable fees suggested by me for being far too high. And again, it’s this entitlement thing. I’m like, “No. I know what a reasonable fee is.” And you work out, and they want a writer with a degree and a masters, and 12 years’ experience in freelance writing to work for something like £5 an hour. It’s utterly ludicrous. When I see other writers pandering to this it really does get my goat. Because we both know it’s hard, we both know it’s hard to get started as a freelance writer, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, and I will keep saying it – I never had to work for free to get my business going, nor did I land on my feet, nor did I have mommy and daddy paying, nor did I have a safety net. I went out and I found paying opportunities, and okay, I earned less than I do now, but it was still paid work that helped me to live.

PW: And we’ve both been in the business for long enough to have tales of when we frankly screwed ourselves over.

LH: Yeah, of course. Especially with like long manuscripts and things.

PW: That’s it. By miscalculating or not appreciating how much a piece of work was worth, or even just not having to —

LH: I think we’ve all done that, haven’t we?

PW: Yeah. Just not having the confidence. We’ve been there, we’ve done it. And we know it can be really hard, especially if you get established. If you’re in a position where you’re doing very, very low-paid work, you’re in a cycle that’s hard to break out of.

LH: Of course.

PW: Because you have to do such a volume of it in order to get your rent paid that you don’t have time to do the stuff that would build your business ordinarily.

LH: Yeah. You don’t have time for the marketing, and you don’t have time just to actually put real thought into the work that you’re doing, and take considerations like SEO seriously.

PW: Exactly.

LH: And to really work well because spending time on a piece of writing helps you to improve your skills.

PW: Definitely.

LH: You know, the better you get, the more you can charge, obviously.

PW: Yeah. And so it’s not that we don’t appreciate that it’s a real trap if you’re in it. If all your clients are from Elance, and you’re just bidding your lowest cost for every piece of work, we’re not underestimating how rough that is. However, you need to break out of that consciously, and with care and with determination, because if a client’s paying you $5 today, it’s not going to up it to $50 tomorrow.

LH: No. Knock your cheapest clients on the head and spend that time doing something better.

PW: Yeah. Finding 50 other ones.

LH: Yeah. Because a lot of writers that we see who are reaching that, “Oh, my God. This is never going to work,” and they’re thinking about letting for-profit companies take advantage, they haven’t even done everything they can to try and make a go at things. This is what’s frustrating: you’ll find that they’ve got an infrequently updated Twitter account with no calls to action and no real oomph to it at all; you’ll find that they’re not on Linked In, and they’ve not tried things like uploading an hourly, like a fixed-price job to people per hour. And I think it must be the culture of freelance writing and the forces that we’re exposed to, like those greedy businesses. Because there seems to be this real defeated attitude sometimes, like this real, “Ooh, no!” when it comes to charging a fair rate that you can actually live on. And if you stick to your guns people will have no choice but to pay you or bugger off.

PW: Yeah. Your $5 client isn’t going to pay you $50. You need an entirely new client base. And then you’re not going to find them in the same place, and so you need to expand and, like Lorrie says, spend some time – set yourself up in a position where it’s possible to leap from and get the better stuff.

LH: Keep your eyes focused on the fact that is not a reasonable rate. And when it comes to setting your freelance writing rates, a lot of writers I see make the mistake of basing their fees on what suits their clients. And it’s the wrong way around, isn’t it? It’s 100% the wrong way around.

PW: Yeah. If you’re having to write three blog posts an hour to break even, then your writing’s not going to be very good.

LH: No.

PW: And so you’re not going to entice people.

LH: Absolutely. And if you are finding you are working your ass off and you’re earning very little, it’s not you that’s the issue. Pip and I did a series of three episodes on money issues quite a while back now, where we discussed how to set your rates properly rather than just plucking figures from the sky, how to calculate rates based on your needs, your living expenses, your costs, and how to increase them if necessary. Because think about it. I mean, if you went into a shop and everything was too expensive – say you went into a nice independent boutique on a high street, everything was too expensive – you wouldn’t expect the shopper to lower the prices for you.

PW: Well, I want a cardigan and I have a 20p. It would be really good exposure for your shop if I’m seen wearing it.

LH: [laughter] I’ll tell people where I got it. You’d leave, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t do something so stupid. You’d leave and you’d go somewhere you can afford. And while it’s okay to be flexible with your pricing, say if you’ve got a client that’s very long-term, or they give you loads of regular work, or you have pay rates where you’re having complete dry spell, then dropping them to something ridiculous isn’t going to work. But being flexible is okay, but being ridiculous isn’t going to do you or your client or your fellow freelance writers any favours at all.

PW: And this relates very closely to our next reason why you shouldn’t write for free, and that is that the time you spend writing for free could have been spent attracting lucrative work. If you spend two hours on a blog post for free, just think how many companies you could have researched and emailed in that time? Think how much more information you could have added to your website or your Linked In profile. Think how many phone calls you could have made to local businesses. It’s almost always going to be the case that that amount of time will be better spent being proactive about your business than writing for free. Because when you think of it in those terms you can get a lot done in two hours.

LH: You can set up a website in two hours. So at the end of the day it is absolutely possible to get paid and get paid well for freelance writing. It is. Pip and I are fitting here – other sides of a mountain range, but we’re both fitting, I imagine. And we both make a full-time living out of writing for money, and we tackle a variety of topics from the relatively boring to the not so boring. And I know writers who get paid very well for blog posts on feminism, women’s rights. They review novels, they make commentary on sport, and there’s a wealth of other interesting and sought-after jobs that are perfectly achievable and attainable. And while a certain level of commitment and determination of flexibility is needed to achieve success in these more competitive markets particularly, that doesn’t extend to hocking your skills for free.

PW: I think hopefully what you’ll have got from this episode is that not only do you not have to work for free to make it as a freelancer, it can actually be downright detrimental to your progress.

LH: Yeah. It doesn’t work. And, as Pips just said, it’s not only that it doesn’t work, it prevents you from doing things that do.

PW: Yeah, exactly. And so we would love to hear what you think. Head over to our Facebook page and tell us – do you work for free? Do you think it’s useful for you? Is it something you wish you could go like a bad habit about? Or do you thoroughly refuse? And how does that go down? We want to know.

LH: We do. So come over to Facebook.com/freelancewritingpodcast – we’re easy to remember – and come have a chat with us, because one of us is always there. Not always, obviously. If you catch us overnight we’ll probably be sleeping, but we’ll get back to you. We do like having a chat. We’ve got some good links going on there, so come and have a nosey because it’s all extra good stuff. Because freelance writing, as we say, it can be isolating and it can be hard. And it can be hard when you get yourself caught in a situation, and you might be setting their thinking, “Well, they’re really harsh. I don’t want to work for free, but I kind of have to because of my situation.” You, come and talk to us about it, because we don’t it, so there must be a way out.

PW: And if you comment on posts we put up on our Facebook page, you can also interact with other freelance writers who comment, and so it’s not even just like come talk to Lorrie and I, but come and post —

LH: No, we’ve got some lovely listeners.

PW: Yeah. And other listeners will see your comments and so it could be a really useful little forum.

LH: Definitely. And we will not encourage you to work for free.

PW: We’ll actively discourage it.

LH: Definitely. So if you’ve got any questions at all, come and have a chat with us, and you can find all the links to our social media feeds and websites and things, at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com if you don’t fancy Facebook.

PW: And so now it is time for the Little Bird Recommendation of the Week.

LH: Ta-da-da!

PW: In which Lorrie and I share something we’ve spotted that we think you might enjoy. And so my recommendation this week is kind of in the spirit of the topic of this episode. It is a blog post from a website called Success Works – all about SEO copywriting. And it’s a recent post, only a few days ago, called ‘Freelance writers: how to tame the client from hell.’

LH: [laughter]

PW: And much as Lorrie and I are always advocates for being flexible, being responsive, dealing with your clients professionally and respectfully, sometimes we don’t get that back in return.

LH: Nope.

PW: And this post has some very good advice about dealing with those clients that are frankly making your life a misery. They don’t show up for meetings, they change everything at the last minute; they want you to do things that you don’t normally do, that you didn’t agree to. It’s a short post, but it’s just got some frank talking, basically, and some advice about what to do.

LH: It looks really good because it looks like it tackles the kind of negative aspects that your clients can display, even when you’ve been in the business stages. It’s the kind of stuff that will never go away, unfortunately.

PW: Sadly, yes. So some ideas about charging for meeting time, and though this is something that Lorrie and I have discussed perhaps not on the podcast but amongst ourselves.

LH: It’s a difficult one, isn’t it? Because I’ve considered it, and sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t, because it’s rarely well-received.

PW: I think something that both of us have semi-decided on is that to a degree anything should be free, but if it’s getting pushed and pushed, then there is certainly a case for charging.

LH: Yeah. If it’s regular meetings I’ll charge. If it’s an introductory meeting I won’t charge.

PW: That’s it. And so, like with everything else, it’s not a simple yes/no, but this post just gives you suggestions, sings like that, and almost gives you permission really that this is something you can consider – you can charge for meeting clients, you can ask for more money for a rush job, and that kind of thing. So it’s a great little read, and it’s a site that I’m not very familiar with, but just from looking at their post titles, I think I’ll definitely be subscribing myself.

LH: No, it looks really – apart from one thing on it. Can you guess the one thing that’s putting me off the website?

PW: Is it going to ask for free posts?

LH: No. I’ve not actually checked that. It’s the sexy cartoon woman.

PW: Yes.

LH: At the top, with her legs crossed. Ugh!

PW: Yeah. That could be better.

LH: It could definitely be better. But apart from that, the joking aside, the blog post looks great. And, like I say, it’s the kind of stuff that – because we’ll always take on new clients. We’ll never always just have the same old clients again and again and again. And each time – especially with this culture of entitlement at the moment – each time we take on a client, you do often have to tackle these things. And the best way really is to be quite firm.

PW: And it’s so much easier to be clear from the outset than it is to try and change the parameters when you’re in it.

LH: Brilliant recommendation.

PW: Well, thank you very much. And what is your recommendation, Lorrie?

LH: My recommendation, Philippa, is from inc.com, which I like for small business advice. And it kind of goes – it counters the opposite tack to yours, because we all know you can have clients from hell and exploitative clients and stuff. But you can also be a bit of a chump yourself. We’ve all done that. We’ve all been a bit of chump sometimes.

PW: We certainly have. Probably several times today already.

LH: [laughter] Well, speak for yourself. I don’t think you’re a chump. And it is an article from – alright, maybe I do.

PW: [laughter]

LH: It’s an article from Inc. and it’s about productivity, and it’s called ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People.’ You know me, you can tell what sort of mood I’m in, and I’m in that kind of…

PW: Take no nonsense.

LH: Take no nonsense; tell it like it is, lay-it-out kind of mood. Because I feel frustrated with writers when they insist on working for free and working for pennies. Often, when people ask for advice – “Oh, I just don’t have time. Oh, I don’t know about this, or I don’t know about that.” – often I’ll find that there should have been much, much more thought put into building that business from the start and running a business. And that that business isn’t being treated like a career, it’s being treated like a hobby, and that’s where the problem is. So I feel cross. And this is a good post because it goes through seven habits that you might think will make you more effective, but actually, according to this author, won’t.

At first I was kind of surprised. I thought they were quite useful, but it does go down some very interesting points, and it talks about things like always making sure that you finish your task list and always answering the phone when it rings, and doing things immediately – answering an email as soon as it’s there, or signing some papers as soon as they arrive, or posting something as soon as you need to.

PW: I like this because I feel less inept for the fact that I never finish my task list.

LH: [laughter]

PW: I don’t always answer the phone. And yes, it’s quite nice to get a little boost for the fact that it’s not always efficient to do everything on the list, and it’s not always efficient to do everything straight away. I like that because, as Lorrie suggested, it’s constantly being drummed into us that this is what we should be doing.

LH: Yeah, definitely. And it’s not just kind of, “You muppet, you’re not being very effective.” There’s plenty of tips in there and plenty of reasons behind, and they’ve got quotes from people like Marissa Mayer talking about why this kind of thing doesn’t work for them. I really think, honestly, sometimes I want to shake people when they’re like, “Oh, do you have any tips for new freelance writers? Not going very well.” And you can spot like 50 things immediately that they’re doing that are completely daft, and you’re like, “Oh, God, I wish that we didn’t work in a sector where we’re encouraged to screw ourselves over.”

PW: And what I like about this post is that it’s not being 100% prescriptive. It’s not saying “never answer the phone.”

LH: That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

PW: Yeah, never finish your to-do list. But what it’s doing is kind of countering almost the popular wisdom.

LH: Yes, the myths, isn’t it?

PW: Yeah, with some facts. Like one of the things they suggest is a sign of being inefficient is blocking all interruptions. And that’s the kind of thing that some days I really need there to be nothing other than my work. Otherwise I can’t make progress. But other days having a radio on in the background or staring out the window for a few minutes —

LH: Hours.

PW: Yeah. – can give me a boost. And it says interruptions can work like fuel for your brain, and that’s exactly it. And so it’s not saying “never do these things” or “always do these things.” It’s just presenting an alternative view point so that you could question the authority of these rules.

LH: Definitely. And I think it’s helpful, as well, to have a list like this for people who might be running around like scalded cats because they’re working too much for too little. Because if you’re in that situation you do need to be as effective as possible in order to carve out a bit of time in which to reform your business as a profitable fair endeavour for yourself. And if you’re being ineffective as well as overworked and underpaid, you’ve no chance, of course. So that is my recommendation.

PW: I like it very much.

LH: Thank you very much. I like you, too.

PW: [laughter]

LH: So that, listeners, brings us firmly to the end of A Little Bird Told Me episode 68. I really hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. I’m genuinely hoping that the advice that we’ve given will be taken in the right vein, because it’s a very emotive topic, and it’s frustrating not only to see businesses exploiting writers but to see writers being complicit in that, either wilfully or just through desperation.

PW: And this conversation that we’ve had on the podcast is a conversation that we’ve touched on at least once a week between us, isn’t it?

LH: It is, isn’t it?

PW: And so this is – I think it’s about 18 months since we first did an episode on working for free.

LH: 64 episodes have gone past between. So we’ve limited ourselves.

PW: And so this has been brewing for a long time. So if we sounded more scathing than you might expect, do take it in the spirit in which it was intended, which is that we don’t like people getting screwed over, and we don’t like people being exploited because we think that if you can write well, then that should be recognised and that can include monetary recompense. And there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

LH: No, it isn’t. And I think that’s one thing that we do want to say, is that you can feel guilty for charging fairly for your work, and you absolutely shouldn’t. You absolutely should not.

PW: And so thank you very much for listening. I have been Philippa Willitts…

LH: … and I have been Lorrie Hartshorn. And we will catch you next time.

About Philippa Willitts

British freelance writer and proofreader.

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